First, a brief apology for the lack of posts for the last few days. I’ve not actually been able to write anything, except for work and the odd tweet, for six days because of RSI. I’ve now bought an ergonomic keyboard and a gel wristpad, and so I’m going to try to get some writing done again.
While I’ve been away, it’s been one of those weeks where a lot of things come up in different contexts, all of which seem to point to one big idea, which I’m not quite sure how to express, so I’m going to do one of those series of posts I do where I try to untangle several threads of thought. On the way, if I can remain coherent, I’ll be talking about Sherlock Holmes, media portrayals of autism, the process of adaptation, and feminism.
But to start, let’s talk about writing fiction.
I’ve been working on a novel for the last few months. Surprisingly little of that time has been spent with the actual writing. In part that’s because the book I’m working on is an alternate-history novel, featuring many real-life characters, and so I’m reading biographies of them, books on the areas they worked in, and so forth — this is requiring far more research than any of the books I’ve written before (with the music books I knew the subjects well before writing anything — I had to check facts, but not discover new ones).
But there’s another reason as well. My previous novel (Head of State, which will be coming out this year) is, in form if not necessarily in content, a literary novel — in fact it belongs to the form of the Menippean satire, a term which I hadn’t come across til after finishing it. There’s one point in which, I realised after writing it, the story is being told by a nest of unreliable narrators seven deep, the form of the book affects the action, characters break the fourth wall, and all that postmodern and magical realist stuff I like to play with. If you’ve read my book on Seven Soldiers, imagine that, but a novel, and you’ve got the basic idea.
By contrast, this new book is different. While I plan to make it as good and interesting as it can be, and I wouldn’t be writing it if I wasn’t genuinely excited by the idea, the form it needs to be is the men’s adventure novel. It needs to fit a particular genre — and the closer it fits the genre the better — and it has to be an action-packed page-turner. There are spies, and plane crashes, and daring escapes and rescues and so forth.
Now, because I want to write the book well, that means learning to write in this genre (one which doesn’t come at all naturally to me), so I’ve been reading a lot of books on how to write pulp genre fiction, usually books written by people who make a living doing that. I’ve been wanting tips on structure, pacing, and so on, because I’ve never really read this kind of book very much, and I don’t know what the genre conventions are.
The surprising thing that I’ve been getting from the books, podcasts, and so on that I’ve been reading and listening to is the way in which most of them rely on the same advice you’d get from university creative writing courses. Even while many of these writers take pride in writing a novel a month, and being able to churn out genre hackery to order (and note that I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense *at all* — they are working hard and producing something people enjoy; it’s not my thing, but I won’t criticise others for it), they talk about the creative process in much the same way that serious literary writers do.
In particular, one piece of advice I’ve seen in these books that I’ve also seen in serious academic work by creative writing lecturers is “all story is about character — about how characters relate to each other, and about how characters change. Your principal character must change during the story, and that change must be the focus of the story. All else is secondary to that”.
And I think that is dead wrong. As my hand is seizing up now, I’ll explain why tomorrow.